By Scott Dickison
I recently learned of a tradition in the Anglican Church that celebrates the final Sunday before Advent as “Stir-Up Sunday.”
Apparently the name “Stir-Up Sunday” comes from the opening words of the collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer reads,
Stir-up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A beautiful prayer, no doubt, but what interests me about “Stir-Up Sunday” isn’t its origins but how it’s celebrated. Stir-Up Sunday is traditionally the day when British families gather in the kitchen to make Christmas pudding, with each family member taking a turn to “stir up” the ingredients.
Christmas pudding is an oh-so-British holiday treat dating back to medieval times that’s made by boiling down fruits with egg, shortening and spices (You might know it by another name, “figgy pudding,” featured in the Christmas carol, We Wish You a Merry Christmas). It takes several days to congeal, so the idea is that you make it far in advance so it will be ready to enjoy at Christmas dinner.
Traditionally the pudding is made with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and each family member takes a turn stirring one in and making a wish. Tradition even dictates that one is to stir from east to west in honor of the three wise men’s journey — they’ve thought of everything.
Now, I’m not suggesting that your family try your hand at Christmas pudding this year — though that could be a lot of fun. But I am suggesting that what’s behind this tradition — gathering with loved ones to prepare for the coming Advent and Christmas season, and doing so by making foods that are special and meaningful to all of you (most families have their own Christmas pudding recipe that’s handed down through the generations) — well, these are traditions worth considering. In fact, I suspect many of you already have a practice of doing so, though we do it by another name: Thanksgiving.
It just so happens that Stir-Up Sunday falls on either the Sunday before or after Thanksgiving (this year it was before). Of course, Thanksgiving kicks-off what’s come to be known as “the holiday season,” though these days the Christmas music at the mall is rolled out closer to Halloween. And there’s certainly a purely commercial way to approach this time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But there’s also a deeply spiritual way. You might say that Christmas completes what Thanksgiving begins.
At Thanksgiving we gather with friends and loved ones and celebrate all our many blessings; recognizing that we are blessed with much more than we deserve. Of course, this is not an exclusively Christian idea, but it gestures toward where Christian faith begins: understanding that God is the source of all life and not “we ourselves,” as the Psalmist puts it. Or as Frederick Buechner puts it, “You might never have been, but here you are.” What better reason to be thankful?
G.K. Chesterton once said, “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” I like that. And I can’t think of a better way of approaching this most holy time of year. The spirit of thankfulness begins by enjoying all that we have been blessed with, but it’s made complete by standing in wonder of the incarnate presence of God that makes all these many blessings possible. And it’s this element of wonder that we name and celebrate at Christmas.
So we might say that Thanksgiving prepares us for Advent, which prepares us for Christmas. We begin with thanks for what God has given and end with wonder at what God has done. And the beauty is that this isn’t just an approach to the holidays, but also to the life of faith.
So go ahead and stir something up, be it Christmas pudding or sweet-potato casserole. Dust off those decorations and pull those family recipes out of the drawer. Get the Spirit moving! And get others involved. See what beautiful and delicious things you can make together, because when it comes down to it, that’s what incarnation is all about.